A few days before the Backstreet Boys played the final date of a select-city jaunt across North America — a reprieve from their nightly Las Vegas residency — I spoke with the seminal boy band’s publicist on the phone. In the middle of a conversation about putting me on the guest list, he asked me a question I hadn’t heard in years, save for when I’d mentioned this story idea to my hairdresser, who laughed nostalgically and then asked the same thing: “Which one was your favorite?”
Answering this as a 31-year-old woman feels somehow perverse, despite the longstanding tradition of having a favorite Backstreet Boy. To love the Backstreet Boys in their heyday was to foster a sense of covetousness alongside one’s unbridled fandom. It was obsessive, albeit innocent, unabashed, and devout. It was highly sexual, long before I’d started having sex. This engineering of having a favorite was potentially domesticating. Perhaps it was the difference in age between the Backstreet Boys themselves and the majority of their fan base, but it was through the Backstreet Boys — who even then could not be considered “boys” — that I began to learn about heterosexual power dynamics. Music video after music video offered the same advice: Depending on the assumed preference of whichever Boy you had your eye on — Kevin, Brian, Nick, Howie, or AJ — you should be a woman so cold, unfeeling, and impenetrably mysterious that you remain emotionally untouchable, or go the simpler route and be servile, sweet, monogamous, and manageable.
Of course I had a favorite. (It was Kevin.) He was 27 when I was 12. Now, I’m 31 and he’s 46, and here we all are at Wrigley Field in Chicago. I was unaware, at the height of my own devotion, how deviant it must have appeared for children, not teenagers, but children, to pine so ardently for grown men. It’s an age difference that wouldn’t be remarkable (or illegal) now, but in hindsight I take pause over how ravenously I lusted for the oldest one. The widespread pageantry of longing for any chosen Backstreet Boy is inextricable to me from whatever moment a service bell rang in my head letting me know my sexuality was ready.
Precisely 20 years from the day that the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled debut was released in North America, I’m watching them flit around the stage before an adoring sold-out audience that remembers every lyric. “Wrigley, baby!” yells AJ, the word “baby” reverberating in my conscience.
I go in skeptically, anticipating a spectacle of denial and aging. Everything must die, after all, even the charm and good looks of the Backstreet Boys. I worry that this is going to feel awful, and that I will leave the concert longing for innocence. In the 2015 Backstreet Boys documentary, Show ’Em What You’re Made Of, we see the group struggle to physically prepare for a comeback tour. As such I am nervous to watch the members keep up with choreography that’s been redesigned to accommodate their eroding agility. The frivolous ruse of male ego is sad enough, worse when it unravels right in front of you.
In May, I beamed as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played for two-and-a-half consecutive hours. But even Nick Cave, 60, wisely spent part of that time in a chair. With age, he has become more reasonable about what his body is capable of. The Backstreet Boys, on the other hand, in their late-30s to mid-40s, cling to an image of immortal juvenility. Sure, they now wear wedding rings and, if one looks adroitly enough, their torsos can be seen jiggling beneath coordinated light grey T-shirts, but Brian still waves at the crowd like he’s waving at thousands of children. Kevin still stoops down and waves at Nick’s crotch. They make it not two verses into “Larger Than Life” before humping the air in unison. They do the chair-dance routine. Boyishness is, and has always been, their brand. If they admit they’ve grown up, it’s over.
The couple ahead of me gropes each other and makes out to “As Long As You Love Me.” I avert my eyes to the Jumbotron, and see flickers of perspiration trotting down Nick’s face like it’s a glass of La Croix. His mouth hovers perma-agape in a way that always made his short attention span seem charming, as though earning his focus would be a satisfying feat. I wonder how his breath smells, and whether Kevin takes Hairfinity.
Several women at the concert wear shirts that say, “I still want to marry a Backstreet Boy.” I can’t stop imagining every member having sex, according to how they move, and frankly why shouldn’t I ponder that, given the precision with which they were marketed to me just as I was learning what sex was? I’m an adult now. The innuendo is no longer unclear. (In Show ’Em What You’re Made Of, Kevin recites a German sentence he picked up to meet girls on a European tour in the ’90s: “Willst du mir einen blasen?” he says. “That’s ‘will you give me a blow job?’” Was the innuendo ever unclear to begin with?)
There are a lot of men in the audience. One of them, a 28-year-old guy named Mike, admits that — much like Kevin speaking one useful German phrase — knowing every Backstreet Boys song is an advantage when trying to meet women. Tactic notwithstanding, his fandom is genuine. “I don’t know one dude who doesn’t know all their songs,” he says. “Everybody was a closeted Backstreet Boys fan. Now that we’re older nobody cares … I refuse to go to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. I only went there because that’s where the Backstreet Boys were gonna be.”
After “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” Howie sagely reminds the crowd of the group’s ongoing Vegas residency, now extended into 2018. (A new BSB album is also on the way, as is another sold-out cruise.) They bang out “I Want It That Way” and exit the stage.
That the members have aged 20 years and not outgrown their shtick is heartening, in a way. It’s their cunningness that I struggle with, the lethality of the nice-guy archetype. The Backstreet Boys’ ongoing pursuit of tenderness is a little farcical given that they’re all taken men with families now, but I appreciate the enduring pledge toward obscuring the lines of masculinity before an audience that might learn from a little gradation. How many jokes about the Backstreet Boys are rooted in homophobia?
The following night, BSB still on my mind, I grab my phone mid-conversation in a bar and make note of the line “every time I breathe I take you in,” how it stuns, still. The harmony is soothing, but the lyrics leave me unsettled. So fatalistic, so possessive, borderline threatening — “Drowning in Your Love?”
I don’t think it was the best-selling boy band of all time’s intention to subliminally plant a resistance to dependency within my young brain, but all those songs about romantic suffering, howled desperately in music videos where the gas station was on fire, left a mark on me. These songs were paternalistic and demanding, however gorgeously — truly, gorgeously — sung. (Isn’t this is what Exile in Guyville is about?)
There’s profit to be gained from allowing people’s impractical desires to feel sane. So, too, is there joy in being able to rollick in whatever those desires may be.
Then and now, the Backstreet Boys portray love quixotically. Even as men they were the best and worst of boys — promising but ultimately poker-faced, so sincere-seeming yet making a killing off the frank affection of girls. In the fleeting, fantastical space of their live show, however, permanence and unconditional care seem like attainable goals everyone in attendance has a shot at.
Even just for one saccharine night at Wrigley, baby.